Drive your heroes

2015 Dodge Challenger SRT HellcatThe phrase “don’t meet your heroes” can apply as much to cars as to people. Just as individuals often don’t live up to their admirers’ heroic ideals, cars that people like me obsess over don’t always live up to the hype.

Whether it’s a sleek looking supercar that turns out to be an utter nightmare to drive, or an overhyped newcomer that looks great on paper, but fells numb and unfulfilling in real life, there are many ways a car can fall short of expectations. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the privileges of being a card-carrying member of the International Motor Press Association (IMPA) is being able to attend the group’s Test Days event. Held every fall at Monticello Motor Club about 60 miles north of New York City, it’s an opportunity for journalists to test out a wide variety of cars on public roads, on the track, and off road. At this year’s event, I got to meet a few of my automotive heroes.

I’ve been obsessed with some of these cars for decades, others are fairly recent fixations. I’ve even driven some of them before, but never the way they were intended to be driven. They were all different, but they all lived up to expectations.

2016 Subaru WRXThe Subaru WRX was one of my first automotive loves. I still remember my jaw dropping upon seeing one in a dealership back in 2002, when I was in eighth grade and this rally car for the road was just being introduced.

Over a decade later, I got my hands on a 2016 WRX. This is a much more high tech version than the original, and arguably less charmingly simple. It’s bigger, and the one I drove was saddled with a CVT automatic transmission, not the ideal choice for serious driving. Still, the WRX put a smile on my face. Puttering along the back roads around Monticello, it made even relatively slow-speed driving feel exciting. It also fit like a glove: after a short time behind the wheel, it felt comfortably familiar.

That familiarity continued on the track, where the WRX’s turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive grip made a trouble-free lap easy. By the end of my short time with the car, I’d grown so attached that when I parked it, I reflexively reached into my pocket for a key fob, to lock the doors.

2015 Nissan GT-RAnother Japanese performance legend is the Nissan GT-R. It’s a supercar disguised as a comfortable two-door coupe, that can hang with a Porsche 911 Turbo for a fraction of the price. Years before it was made available in the U.S., the GT-R became a legend as one of the top cars in the Gran Turismo racing-game series. That’s how I first found out about it. That R34-generation model was as alluring mysterious as an alien world, and I eagerly followed the trajectory of the current R35 generation from conception to its arrival in U.S. showrooms.

I’ve driven the GT-R before, but always on relatively low-speed public roads, with ever-vigilant cops and plenty of other cars. So when I finally got a chance to see what the 545-horsepower beast known as “Godzilla” could really do, I couldn’t get across the parking lot fast enough. While the GT-R has garnered plenty of praise for its unbelievable performance, I’d also heard plenty of criticism. It’s too heavy, and relies too much on sensation-dulling technology, some have said.

The GT-R certainly is big by sports car standards, but like its namesake, the Nissan is also ferocious. To indulge a cliche, it attacked the corners, but also showed amazing precision. Its clever all-wheel drive system and electronic aids intervened in the only way you want them to, helping to smooth things out, without wresting control away from the driver.

2015 Mercedes-Benz G500It’s not all about speed, though. Off road, it requires as much precision to maintain forward momentum at 2 mph as it does to thread a car through corners at track speeds. One of the legends of this realm is the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, a converted military vehicle that’s been in production since the 1970s. Known as the “G-Wagen,” it’s been masquerading as a luxury SUV in the U.S. for about a decade now.

I love military vehicles, so this boxy Mercedes immediately stole my heart. I never thought I’d get to drive one, but then I found myself crawling down a steep hill in the woods behind the track, with an instructor making pronouncements about left-foot braking and “trusting” the vehicle, like some sort of off-road guru. Despite seeming almost as wide as the course, the G-Wagen proved an able partner in navigating the terrain.

2015 Dodge Challenger SRT HellcatI was at least somewhat familiar with all of these cars, either from years of past admiration or previous drives, but the Dodge Challenger and Charger Hellcat twins were completely new to me. They hit the automotive world like a bomb last year, both brandishing a 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi V8 with 707 horsepower. They may be humble Dodges, but the Challenger and Charger Hellcats can both top 200 mph. The Charger Hellcat is actually the fastest four-door car currently in production.

After hearing a colleague’s tale of sliding sideways up a hill in one of these, I was a little intimidated by the Challenger Hellcat. But with some gentle throttle application and the electronic aids turned on, it turned out to be just as easy to pilot as many other performance cars, but much more dramatic.

Hit the throttle, and you’d better be awake. The Hellcat engine pummels you with acceleration and, yes, the 707 hp makes a big difference over less-powerful Challenger variants. The Hellcat felt like it just wanted to keep accelerating until the very horizon was splattered across its windscreen like a bug, the supercharger cackling maniacally the whole way. In short, it lived up to its billing as a hellacious muscle car.

2015 Dodge Charger SRT HellcatBut muscle cars aren’t supposed to be able to handle. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I took the Charger Hellcat out on the track, other than it might be… difficult. Yet while not exactly nimble, the big four door acquitted itself pretty well, and I was very impressed by what it could do in the hands of the Chrysler driving instructor I rode shotgun with after my lap. Where I felt the need to slow down to maintain control, he just barreled through like the Charger was a tiny Miata.

Maybe it’s just that today’s cars are more refined than their predecessors, or that consumers increasingly demand cars that can do everything well, rather than sacrifice practicality and comfort to performance or style. Either way, the upside seems to be that today, if a car looks good, it probably is.

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